Chris Blackhurst: Only white shirt I found in M&S was for an orang-utan
Has Marc Bolland ever tried to buy a shirt in M&S? It's my challenge to him: go into any branch of Marks & Spencer and look for a plain white formal shirt. You will find chaos. There are Savile Row shirts and long-sleeved shirts and double cuffs and non-iron shirts. The choice goes on and on. But as I found in my local M&S in west London recently – having spilled my lunchtime soup and needing a shirt for an afternoon meeting – you almost certainly will not get the one you want.
There appears to be a paradox in operation at M&S: the larger the range, the bigger the section of store devoted to the item you want, the less likely they are to have it in stock. I wanted an M&S Savile Row white shirt. I wasn't bothered if it was buttons or double-cuff. I was concerned, given my relative shortness of height, not to have extra-long sleeves – I didn't want them hanging out of my jacket, scraping the ground like an orang-utan. Sure enough, that's all they had: white with extra-long sleeves. There were plenty of regular-length blues and pinks. But if I wanted a simple white shirt I had to have those additional inches in the arms.
Why is it like this? I interviewed Mr Bolland when he was at Morrison's. He proudly showed me round a shop that was neatly arranged, with clear lines of vision across the store, all the shelves well-stocked, staples visible and unavoidable, but luxuries as well for those who wanted them.
M&S's clothing sales have fallen for the eighth consecutive quarter. The excuse by executives is that their job is tough, that M&S is a monster, too big to get right easily and quickly, stuck with awkward sites, swamped by demographics and the need to cater to different markets. All that is true, but it also applies to other retailers, many of which are performing more successfully than M&S.
What M&S lacks is self-confidence and focus. The first thing Gordon Ramsay does on visiting a struggling restaurant for his Kitchen Nightmares TV show is to check the kitchens for cleanliness and waste, and to cut down the menu. The same should apply to M&S. It's too scared to reduce its ranges. The result is a mess.
It's too easy to blame poor design. M&S's problems are as much about logistics and organisation. Time is running out for Mr Bolland.
Why hippies can make good recruits
Well said, Rory Sutherland. The Ogilvy & Mather vice-chairman says those with first-class degrees are not always as suitable recruits as graduates with lower seconds or thirds.
Mr Sutherland despaired at the lack of "hippies, the potheads and the commies" on a recent visit to Cambridge, describing it as similar to a business school as students compete for employers to take them on. "Recruiting next year's graduate intake for Ogilvy would be easy. We could simply place ads in student newspapers: 'Headed for a 2:2 or a third? Finish your joint and come and work for us.'"
On a trip, also to Cambridge, where once the college bar would have been full in the evening, it was empty. "Everyone's too serious nowadays," said a senior don, apologetically, after I asked where all the students were.
Students and their tutors and parents should do well to remember that in the end, what employers are looking for is whether they want to work with that person. That can mean spending an awful lot of time with them – that means choosing someone who is personable and rounded, who gets on with people.
A scoop, 19 years in the making
What comes round comes round, eventually. I first wrote about the likelihood of Royal Mail privatisation 19 years ago on the front page of this newspaper. Michael Heseltine was President of the Board of Trade and he was considering the idea.
Alan Johnson was general secretary of the Union of Communication Workers and I recall tracking him down at the Labour conference to ask him what he thought. He mocked it then. Now, almost two decades later, Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, is mooting the plan. And guess what? The union still don't like it one little bit.
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